Spring is here and the campus is in bloom. This is a bee’s favourite time of year and a good time to appreciate the wonder of bees! You might see them busily buzzing from flower to flower collecting nectar to make honey. As bees gather nectar pollen sticks to their tiny hairs. When they fly to a new flower some of the pollen gets transferred enabling fertilisation and sexual reproduction of the plant. This process of pollination is vital to agricultural production. An often quoted statistic is that one third of the human food supply is crops that are dependent on pollination by bees.
Bees also use pollen as a source of protein. If you look closely at a bee you might see the little baskets on their hind legs. Bees fill these with pollen so they can carry it back to the hive and fed it to their young. You’ve probably heard about the queen bee but did you know that a healthy queen lays up to 2000 eggs a day or eight times her body weight! That’s why another bee product, royal jelly, is considered a superfood.
At the ANU I would guess that there are roughly half a million bees distributed across the campus happily going about their business every day. Bees are actually a lot like students. They work hard but they also learn from each other. The famous ‘waggle dance’, first described by Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, is a bee’s way of communicating. There are other ways that bees might be like students too. For drones, the only male bee in the colony, procreation is a primary objective. Despite their high maintenance (they must be fed and cared for by the female worker bees), drones are tolerated and allowed to remain in the hive because they may be needed to mate with a new virgin queen (when the old queen dies or needs to be superseded).
A signifier of bee’s importance is their presence in so many fields of research such as food security, organic chemistry, biodiversity, biology, genetics, anthropology, commerce, art, literature – even robotics and architecture! The ANU has a long tradition of bee research but bees are generally undervalued. The ANU Apiculture Society was recently established to promote student scholarship on bees and to encourage students to engage with campus sustainability. Bees offer a great interdisciplinary frame through which we can view the world. Along the way we’ll hopefully produce some delicious honey that will reflect our campus’ unique flavour.
We’re soon to introduce two new colonies to campus which will provide opportunities for students to get up-close and personal with these fascinating creatures. All of us enjoy food but we don’t often think about what was involved to produce it. Whether you realise it or not, bees are a fundamental part of your life. So next time you see a bee remember to thank it for being so amazing.
Nicholas Mortimer is from the ANU Apiculture Society and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org